CEDAR RAPIDS — All eyes were on Cedar Rapids on Election Day long before the first-in-the-nation caucus status began flooding the state with candidates.
The Nov. 4, 1944, issue of the Saturday Evening Post brought Norman Rockwell’s “Election Day, 1944” watercolor series into American homes, proclaiming Cedar Rapids the “quintessential Midwestern town.”
In the 65 years since that time, however, facts have been blurred by fiction surrounding Rockwell’s visit. Was the main character based on a man photographed in Cedar Rapids or a model in Vermont? Was Rockwell in Cedar Rapids a matter of months or mere days? Why did he come here? Did he stay in a prominent banker’s home or just nap there? How much were the models paid?
An exhibit of watercolors, photographs and research will answer those questions and more when “Norman Rockwell: Fact & Fiction” opens Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, 410 Third Ave. SE.
The five watercolors featured in that issue of the Saturday Evening Post were framed as one unit when a grass-roots effort last fall raised $503,000 in 10 days to keep them, along with paintings by Grant Wood and Marvin Cone, from being auctioned in New York. All are now part of the local museum’s permanent collection.
“Norman Rockwell is really rare — his works are very hard to find,” says Terry Pitts, the museum’s executive director. “It’s very valuable. For us, it’s so remarkable that (the paintings are) of Cedar Rapids. Many of the people were from Cedar Rapids. It’s a great story about Cedar Rapids. It’s a great piece of local history that everyone should be proud of.
“This was a town selected to be the typical Midwestern town at the end of World War II for showing what democracy was like. It must have felt like a reaffirmation of the values of the community of that time. That still holds; that’s why (the paintings) are such an interesting grouping.”
The five paintings have been reframed as individual pieces, which not only facilitates the exhibit, but will allow them to be shown individually more often.
“We don’t like to show watercolors very often,” Pitts says. “The color fades automatically a little bit every time they’re exposed to light.” Putting them in rotation gives the museum more options for exhibiting them in the future, he says.
The coming exhibition looks beyond the finished product.
“It’s a show about his process, how he worked as an artist,” museum curator Sean Ulmer says. “We’re familiar with his images but not how he worked. He arranged the scenes so he had a picture in his mind.”
Rockwell hired Wes Panek of Cedar Rapids to photograph local folks posed in vignettes that would later become part of the paintings. Rockwell is even visible in some of the photos, helping arrange the scene or holding props. Panek took the photos in one day at the old Cleveland Elementary School in northwest Cedar Rapids and printed them overnight. He was paid $100 on June 5, 1944, and another $9.70 on July 15, 1944. Most of the models were paid Rockwell’s going rate of $5, Ulmer says.
Rockwell took those black-and-white photo studies back to his Vermont studio, and using a few others taken in Vermont, pieced them together to create the scenes for the main large painting and the four smaller ones. Those photo studies will be mounted by their particular paintings in the exhibition.
“Rockwell used the photographs so he didn’t have to have the models sit there all day long. In certain respects, he’s totally faithful to the photographs and in other respects, he totally changes them. It’s fascinating to think through what he’s trying to achieve,” Pitts says.
The exhibit also will feature unused photos; enlargements of the paintings, in which Rockwell’s pencil lines are visible; an 11-minute video; a photo of Rockwell’s preliminary charcoal drawing; and a preliminary oil painting of the main scene. The oil, painted on a board instead of canvas, is being shipped from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass.
“Rockwell mostly worked in oils, so this set is an anomaly,” Ulmer says. His best guess is that Rockwell may have switched to watercolors when running up against the Post’s publication deadline. “The watercolors are so exacting I can’t imagine he saved that much time,” Ulmer says.
Rockwell, whose life spanned 1894 to 1978, created a legacy that endures today.
“Part of his fame is that he was creating images that struck a chord in the American public,” Ulmer says. “He came into their living rooms by way of the Saturday Evening Post. He had the ability to capture vignettes of American life that were sometimes poignant, sometimes humorous and sometimes both.
“Now (his works) have an element of nostalgia attached to them,” Ulmer says. “Even the younger generation that didn’t grow up with Norman Rockwell knows his work because he’s become part of the popular culture.”